Child support collection lags

On February 1, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

DHS plans to invite bids for work now done by county

By Alex Doniach,
February 1, 2008

Citing a lack of improvement in Shelby County Juvenile Court’s child support collections, officials at the Tennessee Department of Human Services plan to put the operation up for competitive bid.

In Wednesday’s letter to Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person, DHS Commissioner Virginia Lodge said the decision to solicit bids came after needed improvements to the court’s child support collection rate — which lags behind other divisions in the state — had not been made.

Shelby County’s child support division received a one-time, $3 million increase in state and federal appropriations last year on the condition the court ramp up its collection efforts.

“Because we have not seen the needed improvements, particularly in cases with orders and cost effectiveness, we think it is necessary to issue a competitive professional service bid solicitation for the Child Support work in Shelby County,” Lodge wrote, noting that Gov. Phil Bredesen’s proposed budget for next year did not include additional funds for the court.

DHS officials said they will open the bid process to private firms with the goal of having the new agency handling cases by July 1 — which could mean the loss of some 200 county jobs.

Lodge added that DHS “would certainly be happy for you to be one of the bidders in this process.”

While Shelby County collects child support payments at a rate of about 54 percent, the state averages about 57 percent, according to Mike Adams, DHS assistant commissioner for child support.

But Adams said the court has the most trouble getting cases “under order,” which means preparing the legal documents and notifying the delinquent parent to pay up. While Shelby County has 51 percent of its cases under order, the state averages 69 percent.

Shelby County is the only district that collects child support through Juvenile Court.

Adams said when Knox County moved its program to a private company in 2002, the percent of cases under order jumped from 34 to 72 percent over five years.

But Person and Juvenile Court officials say they haven’t been given the time to show improvement.

The General Assembly last year gave a one-time $1 million increase, with $2 million in matching federal funds, on the condition that the court improve its collection rate.

Person said since July 1, those extra dollars have allowed the court to hire 42 additional caseworkers and contract attorneys, many of whom only recently joined the court.

“We did not get to the point where we could be become fully operational and utilize the additional funds the legislature gave us until we were able to get everything together — space, furniture, people — and then connect to the system, which happened 21 days ago,” Person said.

He said with the new employees in place, he anticipates an almost immediate 6 percent increase in the number of cases under order.

Person said given the court’s high caseload, historically it has been severely underfunded by the state.

With about 122,000 cases, Shelby County’s child support division handles nearly a third of all cases in Tennessee; Davidson County trails Shelby with about 39,000 cases.

With a staff of 247, employees handle about 500 cases apiece.

And while Juvenile Court officials said they received $11.9 million in 2006-2007 to handle about 119,000 cases, the 10 state divisions managed by private companies, including Knox and Hamilton counties, received a combined sum of $21 million to handle 128,500 cases.

DHS’ attempt to privatize is likely not the final word. Person plans to meet with the Shelby County legislators in Nashville next week to discuss options.

Court officials say privatizing could mean the loss of more than 200 county jobs, potential salary cuts and millions of dollars in administrative costs associated with moving the operation.

Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the plan by DHS is premature because the legislative budget process hasn’t started.

“It’s a serious situation, and we are all very concerned,” Norris said. “We are going to meet as a delegation next to discuss the way this has been handled.”

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